DC police computer glitch puts thousands of cases in limbo

Reuters/Samantha Sais
Officials in Washington, DC are reviewing thousands of criminal cases after learning that a computer glitch may have prevented defense attorneys from receiving evidence during the last two and a half years.

An apparent problem with the database software used to log law enforcement records in the nation’s capital was brought to the attention of authorities late last week, the federal attorney overseeing DC said Monday, prompting an emergency probe to be launched over the weekend of records maintained by the city’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

According to the Washington City Paper, who broke the story on Tuesday this week, “police could enter information into the system, only to have it never appear in reports.”

Officials aren’t sure how many cases have been affected, but the MPD began using the database, I/LEADS, in September 2012, according to the Washington Post.

“It was possible that in pending and past cases MPD was in possession of information that should have been disclosed to the defense and had unwittingly failed to provide that information,” outgoing United States Attorney Ronald Machen said in a letter sent to lawyers on Monday.

The missing details that have so far been uncovered have proved to be “minimal in quantity,” Machen said, according to the Post, and had in many instances already been disclosed to the defense through other means. The revelation is raising concerns among some, nevertheless, including those who defend suspected criminals and rely on law enforcement’s information to prepare their cases.

Julia Leighton, a general counsel for the District’s Public Defender Service, told the Post that the news “called into question the fairness of the trials.” In Machen’s letter, Leighton said, prosecutors “raise more questions than they answer about the scope and the nature of the problem.” Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Leighton said her office will demand “a full and fast accounting” of the snafu.

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“It could be a mess, depending on how long we are talking about and what kind of information we are talking about,” A.J. Kramer, the Federal Public Defender for DC, told the Journal with regards to the probe.

A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office, Bill Miller, told the Post that his office was coordinating with DC police in order to correct the issue as soon as possible.

“We are working closely with the police department to resolve this issue and move forward with our shared goal of making sure that the innocent are not wrongfully prosecuted and that the criminals who harm our community are rightfully held accountable for their actions,” Miller said.

Unlike other cities in the US, federal authorities have jurisdiction over criminal matters in the District. Machen, the US attorney for the District of Columbia, announced this week that he’d be resigning from the Post effective next month. Officials from Machen’s office told the Post that the attorney’s resignation was unrelated to the software issue.